A Personal Account of 9/11
By Ryan BakerI will always remember when I was nine years old and Mr. Gardella quietly announced to my fourth grade class that a plane had been flown into the World Trade Center. I remember watching the news and seeing ash and debris engulfing the people who were struggling to make it down the street. I remember seeing the same smoke and ash from a mountain road on my mother’s drive to work. I remember fear and confusion as my mother sat me down to explain, in halting words, that my uncle Michael, her brother and a firefighter in the FDNY, had been in the South Tower when it collapsed. I remember her exact words as “he’s just missing. We don’t know for sure what’s happened.” I remember thinking, as only a child can, that this meant Michael was alive. I held on to that belief for four months before his body was recovered from the rubble. I remember reading the names of the dead next to Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2003, as a relative of a victim. I remember in high school feeling a brief moment of kinship, and then shame for that feeling, when the names of the dead included the father of one of my friends. Another had lost a brother. I remember a decade of my life during which my family and I grew up shaped by an event that likewise shaped the course of my country’s political and social landscape, maybe permanently.
But most of all, I remember anger. Uncontrolled, uncomprehending and utterly consuming anger.
I was not alone in this. I had lost a piece of my family to something I could not understand. It was not an act of war but of terrorism, a now commonplace word that at the time was totally new. I memorized the name Osama bin Laden and imagined myself as the American who killed him. I grew up wanting to be a Navy SEAL.
In the course of my near decade-long rage, I saw the pain that my family went through. My grandparents’ home in the Bronx had become an open house, not just for my absurdly large Irish-Catholic needed support. In my naïveté, I used this to fuel my anger.
What I failed to recognize was the futility of this anger. My family grieved, but they did not dream of revenge as I did, and instead attempted to heal. But I never wanted to heal. My family founded an organization dedicated to donating scholarships to the children of beneficiaries who had died in 9/11, while I printed out military workouts and got into fights.
As I grew older, my anger did not fade. It did, however, give birth to curiosity; I needed to understand 9/11 and I needed to know why it had happened. I needed to know about the people who did it and understand their reasoning. I began to question not only my anger, but also my country. My investigations yielded results I was neither expecting nor comfortable with.
In the spring of my freshman year, months after choosing Kenyon over the Air Force Academy, I had a quiet conversation with my mother over the phone the night the President announced the death of Osama bin Laden. My mom softly asked me what I felt. I remember hesitating a moment, then saying equally softly, “nothing.” The line was silent for a few seconds. Somewhere outside McBride, I heard a drunken “’Murica!” cry. After a deep breath, my mother responded, “good.”
It took me 10 years to fully comprehend that my anger behind 9/11 was neither righteous, patriotic nor healthy. Most importantly, it would not bring back my uncle Michael. In allowing myself to be consumed by what I considered to be a righteous rage, I not only embraced the same essential emotion that motivated the men who flew those planes, but I let them accomplish their mission. It was about far more than the death of individuals: it was an attack on America’s population. Cowards who hide in caves and plot the ills of others do not have the ability to wage conventional warfare on sovereign nations. Therefore, their attack was of a much more insidious nature; it was an attack on the spirit of the American people.
And they succeeded.
We rallied behind a flag. We showed our unity in the face of adversity. We began to rebuild. Yet this was a mask for the same anger that dominated my adolescence, a mask for the same fear and confusion that I felt at age nine. We allowed ourselves to be persuaded by fear. We lashed out at a section of the world that a majority of us did not fully understand. We allowed the government to sign over many basic rights because, ‘hey, if they call it the Patriot Act then you have to agree with it, right?’
Do not misunderstand me. I like the defense budget right where it is, and the idea of reducing it terrifies me. The realities of America’s international position right now do not afford us the luxury of defense cuts.
Yet America’s foreign policy has become shaped by this one event that has caused us to look out at the world across our borders as the enemy. In an era of volatile power shifts and rapid globalization, we looked to our leaders for some form of order, of sense, of a general continuation of our “manifest destiny” as the shining, free city on the hill. Our leaders gave it to us at the expense of a large portion of the very vision our country was built upon.
After last year’s Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation dinner, I spoke with my grandfather about the organization and its rapid growth over the past decade. We spoke about the people that it has helped, the futures that it promoted. I asked him where he and the rest of my family found the time and the energy to keep it growing. Finally I asked him if he still felt angry.
Without hesitation, he told me that his grief has outweighed his anger. While he still felt angry, he no longer focused on it. He, and everyone else in my family, got their energy from something more than anger: the realization that true strength is to make something of adversity. To take that which will never leave you, accept that it has become a part of your life and make something positive come of it. My grandfather lost a son. My mother lost a brother. And their response was to ensure the education of as many more sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as they could.
I am still angry, that anger has never gone away. It has become a part of me now, and I doubt that I will ever be rid of it. I will not, however, spend Sept. 11, 2012, angry. I will spend it thinking about my uncle, one of the funniest, bravest, and most heroic men I ever had the pleasure of knowing. I will remember all of the things that made him this way, and try to embody them myself. I will fail.
But most of all, I will remember.